In this May 1966 file photo, U.S. Air Force planes spray the defoliant chemical Agent Orange over dense vegetation in South Vietnam. The Department of Veterans Affairs recently announced new guidelines that would cover exposed veterans for additional diseases, including Parkinson's, ischemic heart disease and a form of leukemia.
Thirty-five years after the end of the Vietnam War, many veterans of that conflict are still battling for compensation for diseases they believe are related to Agent Orange, a defoliant that includes several kinds of dioxins.
The Department of Veterans Affairs recently announced new guidelines that would cover exposed veterans for some additional diseases. But the announcement has drawn criticism.
Vietnam veteran Don Wade used to spend his free time building electronics equipment. The results of his hobby line the walls of the den of his home in Raleigh, N.C. But about a decade ago, Wade, who still looks fit and trim at 61, noticed he had more trouble soldering the tiny electronics. His hand had developed a minor tremor, which has only become worse.
"If I take my medication, I'm good for about a half-hour," he says. "My rigidity is, you know, it's like a glove on your hand. And when I walk, it's like somebody walking in 3 feet of water, 2 feet of sand."
Wade was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease in 2003. He is being treated at the VA Hospital in Durham, N.C., and is happy with the care. But he has never been happy that the VA denied his claim that the Parkinson's resulted from Agent Orange exposure while he was a Marine in Vietnam.
"Basically our job was to unload stuff. One of the items was the 55-gallon drums of Agent Orange," he says. "At that time, I had no inclination that what was being spilled was to some degree toxic."
So Wade welcomed the VA's announcement that it would begin approving compensation claims for Parkinson's disease, ischemic heart disease and a form of leukemia. Under an existing 1991 federal law, the VA already compensates for treatment for many diseases, including type-2 diabetes.
Wade says the hospital was abuzz with the news.
"There were about five people that came up: 'Did you hear about the VA?' "
Wade knows he came into contact with Agent Orange, but for many vets the connection isn't as clear.
"There is no possibility of proving on an individual basis what the exposure was," says Trude Bennett, a public health researcher at the University of North Carolina who studies dioxin exposure. "Even if you could measure the body burden of the chemicals in someone's body now, it would have dissipated from the time of the original exposure.
"So there's also no way to prove with absolute certainty a causal effect between the exposure and the medical condition."
The VA estimates the tab for treating these newly added diseases at about $40 billion over the next decade.
"We are in a very bad time economically, so suddenly there's been tremendous resistance to implementing this process," he says.
The new VA rules need congressional approval, but some members of Congress have balked at the price and the spiraling costs of disability claims stemming from Agent Orange. Many vets and their advocates, though, see paying for their health care as part of the cost of war.
Congress has until the end of October to decide whether the new rules will stand and whether Wade and thousands of other veterans will have their treatment covered by the VA.